Friday, September 20, 2019

In an Indy Jazz Fest spectacular, Arturo Sandoval displays his outsized personality at the Schrott Center

The entertainment aspect of jazz has been subject to considerable scorn for many years, so I'm reluctant to add to the chorus of disdain for the flamboyance and sense of fun that's typical of Arturo Sandoval, whose trumpet
In his main claim to fame, Arturo Sandoval can pin your ears back.
predecessors include such fun-loving legends as Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie.

But what the Cuban native offered for Indy Jazz Fest at Schrott Center for the Arts Thursday evening needs to be put in context. It may not be dismissive to label it a kind of jazz vaudeville. There was comedy, comic banter, a serious speech, and head-spinning stylistic variety. And you never had to wait long for the music to change course.

The showmanship was pervasive, maybe a little too insistent. Musically, it was summed up early by the whole band in a whirlwind tour through "Cherokee," although the "head" may have been one of a wealth of its contrafacts (tunes built on the same chord progression). Later, the local favorite "(Back Home in) Indiana" was briefly represented by its best-known contrafact, "Donna Lee."

There was no glitz in his costuming, but it was a show with a kind of Las Vegas vibe. Part of it stems from the variety within the music itself, as a musician known mainly for his trumpet prowess also exhibited his piano chops, turned to conspicuous accompaniment outings on synthesizer and timbales, and offered two types of vocals — as a romantic balladeer ("When I Fall in Love") and a scat singer with the virtuosity of Clark Terry's "Mumbles" persona.

He was correct to tease the pre-show feature — the awarding of Indianapolis Jazz Hall of Fame memberships to trumpeter Virgil Jones (posthumous), photographer Mark Sheldon, and guitarist/club manager Frank Steans — for excessive length. "They told us to come on at 7:50," Sandoval said, before turning to the band and collecting a consensus that they had not taken the stage until 8:10. From now on, this worthy celebration under the auspices of the Indianapolis Jazz Foundation needs to have its talking diplomatically trimmed.

Yet Sandoval himself went on too long at one point with a paean to American freedom that became a lecture. His escape from Castro's Cuba to eminence in the United States was capped by his receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2013), a distinct honor that has been generously distributed for more than a half-century. It's a justifiable source of pride, but the bandleader used it as an excuse to urge greater patriotism upon us.

I can only hit some of the identifiable musical highlights here. The adept band tended to puree everything, but at least Sandoval didn't allow any of the sidemen to be overshadowed. Near the end, percussionist Tiki Pasillas was given a chance to shine during "Besame Mucho" with intricate maracas patterns and in a rattling solo turn on timbales. Pianist Max Haymer had several hard-digging, well-defined solos. Tenor saxophonist Mike Tucker held his own as Sandoval's front-line partner.  I unfortunately missed the name of the first-class guitarist, who took an eloquent solo after Sandoval evoked the muted Miles Davis version of "My Funny Valentine." Drummer Johnny Friday was indefatigable at full force in the tradition of Jack DeJohnette. Bassist John Belzaguy got the least amount of solo display, but his solid support never faded into the background.

Though famed for his blistering facility and penetrating tone in all registers, Sandoval may have a love-hate relationship with the trumpet. That might explain his readiness to turn to other ways of making music. In one of his remarks to the Schrott audience, he looked askance at his horn on its stand. After noting that he'd been playing the instrument for six decades, he added: "Try it for six minutes, and you're going to hate it as much as I do." OK, he was kidding, but still...

Thursday, September 19, 2019

APA Cole Porter Fellow Emmet Cohen shows his staying power at the Jazz Kitchen

Emmet Cohen brings loads of personality and chops to the keyboard.
The winning ways of Emmet Cohen, as linked to his local trio buddies (bassist Nick Tucker and drummer Kenny Phelps), were in full cry Wednesday night at the Jazz Kitchen. Cohen has a big reputation here not just for the quality of his performances, but for his persistence in pursuing the American Pianists Association's Cole Porter Fellowship in Jazz, which he won last April. He had made two previous attempts that put him in the finalist position.

"The young man has a vast expressive range and seems to be able to put to use every technique remotely suitable to jazz pianism," I wrote about Cohen's daytime solo gig at Eskenazi Health several years ago, when he was vying for the big award a second time. That remains true, and he has added the Hammond B3 organ to his arsenal.

The instrument was placed at a right angle to the piano Wednesday night for this Indy Jazz Fest event, and provided a complex flavor to the trio's performance of Ellington's "Such Sweet Thunder" and a brace of gospel-inflected favorites, "Amazing Grace" and "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free." Cohen commanded both instruments together, having piano and organ speak unanimously as he stretched his arms out to either side and delivered rollicking accounts.

For the second set, the trio seemed primed to hit the ground running.  I would be surprised if they had to take much time to get adjusted at the first set, though. Cohen, Tucker, and Phelps thrived on maximizing their rapport out of the gate. They started with Tadd Dameron's "Our Delight" at full blaze, then made a smooth segue into a slightly less intense swinger, Cedar Walton's "Holy Land," which showcased the unfailing note selection in Tucker's command of the walking bass. "Distant Hallow," an unconventional Cohen original, featured oblique harmonies and quasi-gamelan inside-the-piano playing. Afterwards, that justified Cohen's initial words to the crowd: "Welcome to the weird set!"

The audience didn't have to wait long for Cohen to salute the Hoosier songwriter whose name will be attached to his for a few years — and in resume form, perhaps for a lifetime. The Cole Porter medley opened with "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To," which displayed Tucker as a master of melody, then moved energetically into "It's All Right With Me," which featured incandescent duo work between piano and drums.

The medley concluded with the ballad "Every Time We Say Goodbye," with extensive decorative display by the pianist. But the core of it took your breath away for its wealth of tender feeling amid the filigree. (It also revealed that the top two octaves of the piano weren't quite in tune.)

From there, the magisterial blend of two songs associated with the black church and black liberation led up to a finale Cohen has played here before to honor his Jewish heritage, "Hotsy Kaddish." The rendition started with Phelps applying his hands to the kit, reinforcing the piece's folk legacy. He moved smoothly to brushes and sticks as the account heated up in fervor. The crowd went wild, and the trio came back for a ballad encore and a ragtime evocation that naturally incorporated the pianist's mastery of the demanding "stride" style. There's nothing that Cohen can't do in embracing the whole spectrum, and his Indianapolis associates were with him every step of the way.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

A pillar of modern jazz guitar: Bill Frisell plays a solo gig for Indy Jazz Fest at the Jazz Kitchen

Not many jazz musicians can carry off a concert unaccompanied. Success alone is more likely to come to players
Bill Frisell gets down to business on the bandstand.
of a harmony instrument, chiefly the piano. But the guitar has a long history of more than one line at a time, and the advent of sophisticated electronics over the past half-century has given this "people's instrument" legitimate currency in jazz soloing among adventurous players.

Perhaps no one has expanded the guitar's vocabulary more persistently and with more variety than Bill Frisell. With a solid-body electric guitar on one side, supplemented by a row of foot pedals and finger-operated switches in front of him, and an acoustic instrument to his left, Frisell offered ample proof of his range in two Indy Jazz Fest sets Tuesday evening at the Jazz Kitchen.

I attended the second set, also played to a full room.  Starting out, Frisell seemed to be exploring new harmonies on a couple of standards, Thelonious Monk's "Ask Me Now" (if memory serves, though at the age I turned yesterday, it often swerves instead) and Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life." The melodic line was broken up, sometimes adhering to an exploratory manner a little more than it should have. The crunchiness of the result, and the certainty that we were not just listening to a student guitarist feeling his way, promised good things to come.

Blues took over in a segue to a third theme, in which Frisell introduced loops to thicken the texture and set different lines in playful opposition. There was an episode in octaves that tempted me to think he was paying explicit tribute to Indianapolis' favorite son on the guitar, Wes Montgomery. But who knows for sure? There was also more than a hint of country pickin' before Frisell settled into the Beatles' "In My Life." The soloist really got the counterpoint going, channeling the baroque-flavored harpsichord chorus in the original.

Holding the audience spellbound, Frisell picked up the acoustic guitar to etch an effective personalization of "My Man's Gone Now" from "Porgy and Bess." Without overstating it, he captured a true feeling of lamentation. The mood continued in that classic of regretful waste, "Days of Wine and Roses." It was an effective pairing.

A long excursion on electric guitar brought the set to its official end. He enunciated a strong tenor melody and brought in lots of loops and so many different colors in different registers that theater or pipe organists might well be jealous. The grandiose nature of this section made the emergence of the anthemic "This Land Is Your Land" seem  like the inevitable choice, complete with a brief sojourn through "What the World Needs Now."

Frisell's encore put a cap on a heart-warming performance as it referenced "Blowin' in the Wind" as support for a lengthy, solemn interpretation of "We Shall Overcome." In times like these, especially when you hear versions of much-loved tunes that are free of cliche and rich in thoughtful variation, how can an audience be anything but impressed enough to roar its approval?

Sunday, September 15, 2019

ISO's gala opening-night guest raises the "child prodigy" designation to a whole new level

Her media profile has been impressive on its own terms in print and broadcast, and helps account for the household-name sort of
Alma at home, from one of the latest media features (New York Times, June)
reception Alma Deutscher got Saturday night as the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra presented its annual gala opening concert. Cheers, whoops, repeated standing ovations, and a few lusty shouts on the order of "We love you, Alma!" punctuated the atmosphere.

But the 14-year-old musician has a well-grounded reason for being subject to the kind of exposure, vastly expanded in the digital age, that has accompanied extraordinarily gifted artists from the 18th-century birth of public concerts up to the present.

Music director Krzysztof Urbanski is among many eminent musicians who have expressed open astonishment at Deutscher's violin and piano playing and the facility and charm she displays in her compositions, which include a full-length opera.

Urbanski engaged in some entertaining chat midway with the young phenomenon from the Hilbert Circle Theatre stage, whose decor echoed that in the lobby in the amount of healthy shrubbery sparkling with strings of tiny lights.

The conductor seemed almost tongue-tied marveling at Deutscher's precocious accomplishments. The brief interview brought out matters that the prodigy has elaborated upon in interviews, including her affinity for melody, explicit rejection of "ugly music" to match our times, and her attraction to Vienna — where she and her family now live and whose cultural pinnacle as an imperial capital is forever tied to the waltz.

The waltz bulked large in the program, familiarly in the case of the Waltz King, Johann Strauss Jr., whose "Fledermaus" Overture and "On the Beautiful Blue Danube" were hearty bookends. It also linked specifically to the creative side of Alma Deutscher: Her freshly minted "Siren Sounds Waltz" received its American premiere.

The composer was not onstage for that performance, but it proved to be quite the appetizer for the main course: a movement each from her Violin Concerto in G minor and her Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major, with the composer as soloist in both.

"Siren Sounds Waltz" opens with a well-managed urban cacophony keyed to the brief pattern of police sirens in Vienna. The thick melange of sound impressions offers as much dissonance as you're likely to hear in a Deutscher work, and was justifiably linked to the music of Richard Strauss by Urbanski during their conversation. The influence could be detected even after the texture thinned out and the waltz idiom came to the fore.

That Strauss, no relation to the Waltz King but also no mean composer of waltzes (as his operatic masterpiece "Der Rosenkavalier" confirms), seems less an influence on most of her music than another precocious composer in the Austro-German mainstream, Felix Mendelssohn. I thought of that particularly at the most fetching moment in the violin concerto excerpt — the re-entry of the orchestra as the solo cadenza ended. It had the gentle savoir-faire of the North German composer in how he re-introduces the orchestra after the cadenza in his Violin Concerto in E minor (which will be heard next weekend as the ISO begins its Classical Series).

Deutscher's singing tone fitted hand-in-glove with her compositional manner in the Allegro vivace e scherzando  movement of her violin concerto. As both performer and composer, there is a directness about her music-making that doesn't eschew sugary content and even a kind of cheerful banality. I was more moved by the slow movement of her piano concerto; at the start, the solo oboe (tenderly played by Jennifer Christen) was attractive against the bare accompaniment pattern Deutscher offered at the keyboard.

She had told Urbanski that she developed the music out of sadness at her grandmother's death, and the poignancy became pronounced as the movement took a serious turn. It was another evocation, at least in mood, of the way seriousness takes over the corresponding slow movement of that Mendelssohn violin concerto.  I also felt that his "Songs Without Words" may be a ghostly ancestor and companion of the Deutscher muse.

The way music flows out of her was illustrated when Urbanski presided over an improvisational challenge. The names of four notes were drawn out of a top hat individually by three volunteers and the conductor: C-sharp, E, C, and F-sharp. After musing silently for a few minutes, Alma-as-pianist came up with another waltz inspiration based on a set of notes that probably didn't seem congenial at first. She made them so, however, and it was shrewd of her to arrange the four-note motif in an ascending sequence. It allowed her to incorporate her temperamental uplift into the spontaneous creation. There were also touches of the sense of humor that are reflected unabashedly elsewhere in her music.

The concert's delights, keyed to what will probably be the soloist's eternally youthful spirit, were nicely capped by the ISO's encore. Conventional though it is in Viennese-themed concerts, it was entirely fitting here for this gala crowd to be sent on its merry way with Johann Strauss Sr.'s "Radetzky March."

Friday, September 13, 2019

Indy Jazz Fest 2019 opens with a salute to a specialty genre — the bossa nova

The tributary of bossa nova, an import from Brazil, contributed some much-needed fresh water to the jazz mainstream about six decades ago. This year's Indy Jazz Fest got off to an ingratiating start Thursday night at the University of Indianapolis with a salute to the popular genre.
Bossa nova highlight: Julie Houston and Rebecca Rafla sang together with the band a couple of times.

Overlaying jazz phrasing on samba rhythms, bossa nova (Portuguese for "new wave") enjoyed a vogue as the turbulent 1960s plowed their course through American culture.

The originators of the genre — songwriters, guitarists, and singers — became known here, and tenor saxophonist Stan Getz enjoyed a significant boost to his stature as an American bop and post-bop master through his creative association with them. The blend of silk and strength in his tone and his natural lyricism flourished under the bossa nova sway.

Rob Dixon, a saxophonist with stature all his own and a ubiquitous performer and bandleader hereabouts, led the concert. He assembled a band that worked through ten tunes smoothly. Besides Dixon, the ensemble consisted of Sandy Williams, guitar; Scott Routenberg, piano; Brandon Meeks, bass, and Richard "Sleepy" Floyd, drums. All are known for their consummate professionalism in other jazz precincts, and it was fun to enjoy their compatibility in this music.

Rob Dixon, jazz mayor of Indianapolis, presided.
In my view, bossa nova was a godsend to jazz vocalism. I have a notable lack of enthusiasm for most jazz singers. What the Brazilian import allowed was a stylistic lift, a new approach to phrasing over the eighth-note pulse with an unconventional pattern of accents. With wistful, often sad lyrics emphasizing the less "belting" manner of jazz singing, the voice was able to enjoy a new playground, free of show-biz aspirations. True, being comfortable with Portuguese (with English versions interpolated in most bossa nova performances) was a new challenge; otherwise, the rewards were manifold for American singers sympathetic to the genre.

I can't judge the authenticity of their Portuguese, but singers Julie Houston and Rebecca Rafla exuded charm and lyrical warmth in their performances Thursday. Two of the songs — the megahit "The Girl from Ipanema" and an audience-participation finale — brought them together in front of the band. There were ample chances to savor their solo enchantments as well: Houston's "Manha de Carnival" (the theme from "Black Orpheus") expressed an individuality and emotional involvement that Dixon nearly equaled in his florid soprano-sax solo. Rafla's opening pair of songs, "Agua de Marco" and "Corcovado," exhibited comparable expressiveness as well as a freedom in her phrasing that avoided anything unidiomatic.

As the singers took a break, the men played a favorite of jazz musicians, Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Triste." There were excellent solos all around, with Routenberg introducing bluesy hints that received ensemble confirmation in the coda.

The performance was typical of every song's shapeliness in execution, with the endings sounding both fresh and well-coordinated. The singers deserve much of the credit for this effect. Kudos to the protean musicianship of Rob Dixon for inspiring the pleasurable effect of the show, with crucial assistance from two singers (with Houston's estimable flute-playing to boot) who knew what they were doing and clearly believed in it.

[Photos by Mark Sheldon]

Saturday, September 7, 2019

'Twelve Angry Men' kicks off Indiana Repertory Theatre's 48th season

The jury gathers under a guard's watchful eye to begin deliberations.
Part of the satisfaction in detective fiction is that matters not obvious from the apparent facts of a crime will become glaringly clear, thanks to clever sleuthing.

When putting together the puzzle is a collective matter sanctioned by the rule of law, anyone taking in the story gets a double satisfaction: the revelations amount to a happy resolution plus our faith in the judicial system gets reinvigorated. When ratiocinative justice meets official justice, what could be better for our civic health? Our emotions are put into balance with our reasoning, and the result becomes part of the civilized legacy we profess to admire.

In "Twelve Angry Men," Reginald Rose takes us into a jury room to reveal how one of a dozen seated jurors turns around his peers, all strangers to him and to each other, from a guilty to a not-guilty verdict in the trial of a 16-year-old teen from an unspecified racial/ethnic minority. Indiana Repertory Theatre on Friday night opened its 48th season with a production of the drama. Known initially as a television show, then a popular movie, "Twelve Angry Men" works onstage so well because it's the type of play that plunges us into real-world conundrums: What do we believe is true? And how are we sure?

James Still directs thirteen astute actors over a 100-minute span. Junghyun Georgia Lee's set is a drab, basically furnished Manhattan jury room subdued to the point of no-nonsense seriousness. The large, dirty windows are stubborn to open in the hope of fresh air. Embedding the show in the reality of 1957 not only makes sense in there being no air conditioning, which is the occasion for much mopping of brows and necks as summer stress levels rise. It also explains how a jury in a capital case was impaneled consisting of only white men, with one exception in this cast. Gender balance, and other kinds, too, would be the norm today, even though that never guarantees a just result, either.

The men learn only a bit about each other as they attend to the task at hand. These are '50s men — outwardly sure of themselves to a fault, not inclined to intimacy, and perhaps too ready to let their superficial responses to the case they've just sat through dominate their judgment. Rose is stingy with the exchange of personal information; it's only through how they define themselves in considering the case that their personalities take on three dimensions.

Todd Mack Reischman's sound design pours a thin layer of street sounds over the animated, often feisty dialogue. Sparely scored music is another judiciously used accompaniment. Even the thunderstorm is not overdone, though its occurrence late in the jury's deliberations is essential. What continuously captures the attention are the dynamics and maneuvering of the jurors. They respond initially to the outlier among them Juror Eight, played with steady conviction and well-disguised compassion by Chris Amos. The initial surprise his fellow jurors
Stunned and irritated, the jury turns on the resistance of Juror Eight.
express that their verdict is not to be a unanimous "guilty" gradually becomes the slow but inexorable progress of the standard of "reasonable doubt" that the teen stabbed his father to death, according to the charge.

The action is varied not only by Still's control of the mood in the room — from quiet deliberation to burgeoning fisticuffs, with lots of yelling in between — but also by the subtle reorientation of the visual perspective. That's the work of a turntable occasionally turning beneath the table and chairs where the jury is seated. Further variety is contributed by Still's interruptions of a truly "seated" jury, as the men get up, argue, or mill about, sometimes repairing in ones, twos and threes to an adjoining restroom to freshen up and blow off a little steam to whoever among their colleagues happens to be there at the same time.

Particularly exciting was the way the men moved when stirred by Juror Eight's pacing off the route of one of the witnesses while another juror times Eight's studied imitation of an old man whose testimony accordingly seems unreliable. Timing is crucial, Juror Eight teaches his fellows. Everything the prosecution had put forward, in addition to Juror Eight's suggestion that the accused's defense was neither robust nor thorough, starts to weigh heavily upon the men's readiness to deliver their verdict.

The most vociferous proponents of what promised to be the original verdict were played with astonishing passion and insight by Craig Spidle and Robert Ierardi.  Their characters' deep-grained prejudices remind us how current nativism and racism remain in American thought. Resonance with today's equivalent viewpoints are strong, just as they are when readers (or theater audiences) encounter Tom Buchanan's thunderings about the decline of white hegemony in the nearly century-old "The Great Gatsby."

The rest of the juror portrayals benefited from vivid accounts by Seth Andrew Bridges, Scot Greenwell, Henry Woronicz, Demetrios Troy, Casey Hoekstra, Michael Stewart Allen, Mark Goetzinger, Patrick Clear and Charles Goad. In a slight role that necessarily represents the official court world, Adam O. Crowe plays the Guard.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]